Trial Begins in San Antonio in Murder of College Cheerleader

Mark Howerton is on trial in San Antonio, Texas, for the murder of his girlfriend Cayley Mandadi. (Photo by DANIEL CONRAD/Courthouse News Service)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (CN) – Friends and family of Cayley Mandadi filled a San Antonio, Texas, courtroom during opening arguments Tuesday in the trial of Mark Howerton, who is charged with murdering his 19-year-old girlfriend in October 2017.

“Cayley was a fun, quirky young lady who had just turned 19 years old,” state prosecutor Alessandra Cranshaw said in her opening statement. 

She was a sophomore communications major – and a cheerleader – at Trinity University in San Antonio at the time of her death. But her relationship with Howerton “was marked by possessiveness, controlling behavior,” jealousy and violence, Cranshaw continued.

The prosecutor told the jury it will see evidence from medical examinations and the autopsy report, which found Mandadi died after “blunt force trauma to the head and face” and indicated that she had been sexually assaulted. Cayley was “covered with bruises from head to toe, from ears to inner thighs down to her feet,” Cranshaw said.

In Texas, the state must show that the crime would not have occurred “but for” the defendant’s actions – that Mandadi’s death was caused by Howerton alone.

The indictment before the jury claims Howerton “intentionally and knowingly” caused Mandadi to die “by striking” her with his hand, “grabbing and shaking” or “causing her head to strike a blunt object.” It also claims he acted “with intent to cause serious bodily injury” to Mandadi in the course of murdering, sexually assaulting or kidnapping her.

A four-month investigation by the Texas Rangers culminated in a warrant for Howerton’s arrest in February 2018. Investigators concluded that Howerton had abducted Mandadi from the San Antonio music festival the pair had been attending and then punched her face and head and sexually assaulted her. 

According to the affidavit for his arrest, Howerton told the Rangers that he and Mandadi drank heavily and took MDMA, a party drug also known as “Molly” or “ecstasy,” at the music festival on Oct. 29, 2017, before leaving for Houston. Howerton says the pair got into an argument, then pulled over to have “consensual but ‘rough’ sex” involving choking. He says he later noticed Mandadi had stopped breathing and had no pulse.

Howerton told investigators that he was approaching the town of Luling, so he got the attention of an ambulance on the road and drove into the local hospital, where emergency responders called police to report an “unresponsive” young woman who was “nude from the waist down, had bruises on her neck/thigh area, and was bleeding from her vagina.”

During the jury selection process Monday, lead defense attorney John Hunter of Hunter Lane & Jampala explained to the pool of potential jurors that they are not deciding whether Howerton committed kidnapping or sexual assault but only whether he committed murder beyond a reasonable doubt.

Texas’ “felony murder” rule permits the jury to convict Howerton of murder if they find that Mandadi’s death resulted from the course of another felonious action — including kidnapping or sexual assault, Hunter explained. If the jury finds him guilty of kidnapping or sexual assault, but not murder, they must acquit.

Hunter maintained Howerton’s alibi in his opening statement, in which he argued that the state will not be able to paint a “clear-cut” picture for the jury.

“One of the most devastating mistakes we can make in exercising judgment is to cling to our initial first conclusions,” Hunter said. “And if we try to justify and rationalize all of our subsequent decisions, we are often mistaken.”

Hunter did not try to save Howerton’s character and conceded that his relationship with Mandadi was “turbulent.”

“He was jealous, he was possessive, he was insecure,” Hunter said. “Nobody will dispute that he was committing crimes … He provided MDMA to Cayley Mandadi … Mark Howerton owns that.”

But the state will not be able to meet their burden of proof, Hunter argued.

“No one saw anything that transpired between Mark Howerton and Cayley Mandadi that evening,” Hunter said. “[The prosecutors] need to confront the direct evidence.”

“They have blinded themselves to those facts,” he added.

Mandadi was transferred to a level-three trauma center in Kyle, Texas. On Oct. 30, a nurse at the center told investigators that Mandadi “showed no brain activity … that the damage appeared to be too extensive for recovery, and that [she] was most likely brain dead.” 

Mandadi was removed from life support the next day.

A medical forensic examination conducted before Mandadi died found that she was “covered from head to toe with red marks, bruises and scratches,” her eyes were swollen and bruised, and her genitals were also swollen with scratches and abrasions. The Ranger who swore in the affidavit concluded that “the injuries are consistent with a physical and violent sexual assault.”

On Tuesday the jury heard from a paramedic, an emergency room doctor, and three law enforcement officials. 

Sheryl Lane, the paramedic, was driving a patient suffering abdominal pain when her partner noticed Howerton honking and flashing his lights at their ambulance. She described how Mandadi smelled of alcohol when she and other emergency responders administered CPR before pulling her from Howerton’s vehicle and onto a gurney for emergency care.

Officials from the Luling Police Department and Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Office took photos of Howerton and his scratched forearms and knuckles when they arrested him around 1:40 a.m. Sunday morning.

The affidavit described his hands “red in a manner consistent with someone punching someone else,” but Hunter challenged this interpretation when he cross-examined Sgt. Chris Adams, who was a field training officer on duty in Luling on the night Howerton brought Mandadi to the hospital.

Prosecutors filed documents with the court noting that Howerton answered Mandadi’s phone when her friends tried to call that night. When her ex-boyfriend Jett Birchum called, Howerton allegedly responded, “What nigger, why the fuck you calling, stay away, she’s mine, she’s with me, don’t call this phone again,” according to one of the documents.

A court filing also claims that Howerton answered when Mandadi’s roommate, Morgan Sampson, tried to video call her and that Howerton said Mandadi could not come to the phone. 

The state’s attorneys say witnesses will detail Howerton’s previous abusive relationships, incidents of “roid rage” and threats of violence against Mandadi and her friends, including more than one episode in which he pulled out a firearm and threatened to shoot others or himself.

Potential jurors answered a questionnaire pertaining to whether they knew someone who took psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs and whether loved ones had suffered a drug overdose. Other questions pertained to how they viewed aggressive sex between consenting adults, how they weighed women’s accusations of sexual assault against men and whether a victim’s past drug use or sexual history should be considered in trying sexual assault charges.

Visiting judge Raymond Angelini, a retired Bexar County judge, is presiding over the trial in the 144th Criminal District Court.

In May, Mandadi’s mother, Alison Steele, concluded her nearly year-long effort to expand the scope of the state’s kidnapping and missing person alert systems to include adult victims.

Mandadi’s mother and stepfather sat in the front row in the courtroom Tuesday while sorority sisters and other friends filled nearly two rows. Mandadi is fondly remembered by her friends on the cheerleading team and her sorority sisters in Chi Beta Epsilon, who held a fundraiser for the San Antonio Rape Crisis Center in her memory last November.

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